Living Large in Tiny Digs

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Victoria Vargas of Smaller Living about how to live lightly and creatively in 375 square feet. We talked about her experience in a small space, decorating tips, and more:

Can you tell us about your downsizing experience?

Victoria Vargas: I've tended to live in smaller spaces for most of my adult life. When in grad school, it was out of financial necessity and then afterward, as a preference. When I moved back to Phoenix six years ago, however, I upscaled to a more spacious luxury apartment and felt odd and out of place there. It had too much unused space and I rambled around it, trying unsuccessfully to make it feel cozy, but ended up feeling out of place and frustrated.

Not surprisingly, I soon scaled down again, this time to a 440-square-foot trailer, while I started saving for a house. This was in the midst of the real estate boom and housing prices were insane. Eventually, as prices began falling, I started looking around. To my frustration, I couldn't afford the smaller homes that were close to where I work, which is near the university. After weeks of finding nothing close to what I wanted that was in my price range, I stumbled upon my current house, a 1949 yellow and white cottage in a small post World War II-era neighborhood. It was lovely. Plus, all the people I saw out walking around, working in their yards, and chatting with each other delighted me. It had the feel of a real neighborhood.

In addition to being 14 miles from where I work, it was also 1,200 square feet. That may not seem large to some people, but to me it was huge! It was the only thing I could find at the time in my price range, in a decent neighborhood, and that was close to the light rail. So, I compromised and bought it.

Almost immediately, I found myself starting to have some of the same discomfort I had in that luxury apartment. There was simply more space than one woman and a tiny cat needed or would use. After some thought, I realized that the family room addition at 375 square feet was plenty large enough for my primary living space. If I downsized to it, I could rent out the two bedrooms and living room. My housemate and I would only have to share the kitchen and bathroom. Perfect!

To see if I'd be comfortable living in the family room, I first moved my bedroom in there. It was wonderful. So soon after, I moved in my home office furniture and equipment ... then a few weeks later, my living room furniture. It was perfect!

It isn't crowded at all and I get to live in one, coherent space with everything close by. Now I'm doing a few improvements on the other rooms and getting ready for a new housemate.

Can you give our readers three tips to live creatively in a small space?

Creativity is exactly what is needed for living in small spaces, as well as flexibility. First, it helps to let go of preconceived notions of how spaces should be used. Don't get locked into their current or designed function. Converting a family room into a studio apartment may not be a conventional use of that space, but it was a perfect solution for me. There's a brick fireplace, bay windows in front, and front doors leading onto a small private patio in back. I also installed a door between the kitchen and my new digs for privacy. It's the best room in the house and makes for a lovely little home all on its own.

One drawback is that my new living space lacks a closet. There simply isn't enough space for me to bring in a wardrobe or dresser without making the room feel cluttered and claustrophobic. One possibility I was considering was to elevate my bed and build a platform with shelves and drawers beneath, which is a great strategy when storage is scarce. That would work, but quite honestly, I love my current bed headboard and frame and it felt like a waste to let those go.

Fortunately, my family room adjoins to the kitchen and right next to that entry between the two is an unfinished small space, which was likely intended as a walk-in pantry. I hung a curtain across its entry and voila, it's now the perfect space for my closet. It provides a bit of discrete storage for files, my tools, and camping gear. I'll add shelves at one end that are just large enough to fit a few plastic tubs and file boxes, a hanging clothes rod, some clothing shelves, and a shoe rack.

Second, it's important to understand your design style and preferences. Some people who are downsizing are drawn to a spare, modern design with clean lines. Clear surfaces, only a couple key pieces of art, simplicity and a light color palette definitely give a small space a feeling of space and calm. Others, like myself, prefer a bit more texture, color, and artwork. Understanding what makes us comfortable in our spaces makes it much easier to cull our belongings and only keep those things that fit our vision for our space.

Finally, to live well in a small space well, it's important to let go of those things we don't need, love or use regularly. Otherwise, it will be a crowded, cluttered, and stressful environment. What helped me as I moved into my space was to bring in only those things that I needed and loved. Once I positioned all the furniture I was going to use and that fit the space without being crowded, then I hung my art. Then, very slowly I brought in a few framed photographs, books and other special items at a time, until it felt comfortable. That's it. Whatever remains will be donated to charity, sold through Craigslist, or given away through Freecycle.

Can you give our readers a few tips to make their small space cozy?

Absolutely! What I found most helpful was to stick to a single color palette. Warm colors are the coziest to me, so I focused on moss greens, brick reds and golds. When I moved into the house, my friends and I painted my family room a warm, pale chamois color. It was a perfect match with my furniture and art when I condensed my living space down to this room, so I kept it.

Keeping patterns to a minimum is also helpful to keep a small space feeling cozy and comfortable. The main pattern in my space is brought in by my small love seat, which has a muted tapestry pattern. Everything else in the room compliments it and keeps it feeling pulled together. I'm also a big fan of fabric to help make a space feel intimate. I have a few fabric accent pillows on the bed and I hung some curtains across the bay window and in the door's window to soften the space.

Finally, I find that lighting is especially important in a small space. Big, glaring overhead lights can make a small space feel too cell-like, cold, and impersonal. Task lighting and a bit of accent lighting like small table lamps and candles bring a warmth to any room, but really kick up the cozy feel of a small space. If you have a fireplace like my space has, putting candles on a tray in the fireplace is a great way to bring that warmth and coziness into the room regardless of the season. With a fireplace screen placed in front, it's also a great strategy for keeping open flames safe from curious kitty paws.

For more on small-space living and related topics see these AOL Real Estate guides.

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